Cold War Germany is often reduced to the playground of the colossi of the postwar order jostling above the abyss that was nuclear annihilation. As the old joke goes, “a tactical nuke is one that goes off in Germany.” In many ways, the two German states were the foremost pawns in a great geopolitical game, but just as much they were their own countries, contemporary incarnations of a culture that can be traced back to the Germanic tribes of Roman times. They had their own business during the Cold War, and some of it was violent.
West Germany in the 1960s and 70s was subjected to much of the same social unrest that happened in other Western countries during those years. This was over Vietnam in the United States and Algeria in France. The period was a violent one. There were bombings by left-wing radicals in both countries.
In West Germany, that violence took the form of the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Group), named for their leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. They caused great chaos in the West Germany of the Cold War. Their actions are dramatized in the 2008 film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.
The film’s portrayal of these violent radicals reminded me of the student radicals I knew in college, if with a viciousness and a willingness to get their hands dirty — and bloody. They weren’t just terrorists; they were chic terrorists, who at one point had about a quarter of young West Germans willing to support them or hide them from the police.
The film analyzes this particular phenomenon mostly through the eyes of the two founders, Baader (played by Moritz Bleibtrau) and Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), as they build their little terror cell into a larger organization dedicated to the overthrow of the German state. Throughout the film, it is clear that their base of support is middle to upper class. Near the end, there is a scene in which a new recruit worries what her family might think of her after she is involved in an action that results in a death.
In that sense, this film is a story of well-off youth rebellion with a very particular worldview that unconsciously reveals that class background. Your terrorist protagonists go to train in Jordan with Palestinian militants; these Germans insist on sunbathing in the harsh Middle Eastern sun in the nude, scandalizing their intensely traditionalist Palestinian allies. In a different scene, there is an argument between the titular characters, and the topic of misogyny comes up. Baader insists there is no such culture in the organization. Meinhof virulently disagrees. Indeed, they seem to deny that there are any problems within the organization. Even more seriously, it feels like these people had very little plan.
That becomes their undoing; they shoot and they bomb and they burn down buildings, but they do very little to actually bring about the world they say they want. They’re appalled that West Germany hosts American military bases which troops and materiel that are sent to the slaughterhouse of Vietnam, but they can’t do anything about it. They are very good at giving bold speeches in courtrooms, but not in turning obvious public support into something more.
On the other side of the fight is the West German state, led in this film by police officer Horst Herold (played by Bruno Ganz of Der Untergang fame, who gets several conference scenes that will feel familiar to those who have watched the parodies). Officials understand the reasons for the terrorist group’s popularity, but their response is overwhelmingly one of force, rendered most dramatically in a siege involving an armored car.
With terrorists like those and a government like that, the result is a lot of violence that goes back and forth, each reacting to the other’s latest use of force. The violence is rendered viscerally and bluntly. A bomb in this film is not poetic; it is a blunt object that shatters glass and turns people into corpses.
This is not a heroic tale of resistance to state terror or a tragedy of the noble butchered by state actors à la Bloody Sunday (review here). Rather, it’s about what drives “respectable” people to kill and bomb and burn, and the consequences of those actions. The film argues that the result is bloody, messy, and accomplishes little. That, ultimately, is the real tragedy of this film.